Sticks in the Smoke 50: Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

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Sore thumb and golden top hat. (Wednesday 1 March 2017)

Turn through the northern gate into a calm circular courtyard, an anteroom to the main park, a sigh of relief after the stress of zigzagging the packed pavements of Abingdon Street past the Houses of Parliament. The resolute figure of Emmeline Pankhurst, sculpted by Arthur 050dWalker dominates this little space (unveiled in 1930, just 2 years after her death and 2 years after women achieved the same voting rights as men, for which she campaigned most of her life), gesturing towards Parliament with her right hand. Spring blossom and a cluster of daffodils decorate the beds either side of the path. Victoria Tower soars in its majestic perspective seeming to pierce today’s low cloud. The path leads through and the long, triangular 6 acre park opens out. A wild grassy and shrubby fringe garnishes the base of the sedum roofed Parliamentary education rooms. Benches teem with excitedly talkative school groups eating their picnics while another group funnels into the visitors’ entrance.
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Auguste Rodin‘s powerful sculpture The Burghers of Calais sits at the conflux of arching paths. A dark and looming presence above the wide lawn. It was installed in the gardens after the 1st World War. This is Rodin’s memorial to self sacrifice: the six officials of the French port of Calais who surrendered themselves to end a brutal English siege in 1347 during the Hundred Year’s War. The grim and tortured figures, faces downcast, have their 050cbacks turned to the Palace of Westminster, in opposition to its soaring gilded stonework.
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A very different landscape here a thousand years ago- mud flats and reedy marshes, washed by tides. The river wide and swirling. We’d be standing at the southern edge of Thorney Island, originally a wild and inhospitable eyot but, tamed over centuries by the Benedictine monks of Westminster, it became the location for royal palaces and the seat of government, surrounded by natural defensive moats. Fortified walls surrounded the cluster of stone structures and towers of the original Palace of Westminster and Abbey buildings. Over the following centuries, when defensive needs grew less, the River Tyburn, which held the island between its two tributary branches, became more of a hindrance to easy passage to and from the surrounding city. It was eventually diverted into culverts and sewers and filled in.
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Before the 19th century the City’s trade was largely river borne, so much of its river frontage was covered with wharves and quays for unloading building materials, fuel, fish, grain and goods from overseas. A tangle of warehouses and sheds spread out behind. By the time the present Houses of Parliament were built in the mid 1800s, there was a cement works here, along with sperm whale oil refinery and flour mills.
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050eThis riverside park is often seen as a background to TV interviews with Westminster MPs. At times of parliamentary crisis you can guarantee a shot of a junior minister avoiding questions while a Thames barge chugs into one ear and out the other.  No camera crews to be seen today though.
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I walk the embankment path, and weave the line of broad and spreading plane trees which reach their branches out across the tarnished silver Thames. Lunching tourists occupying the seats on raised platforms. Commanding views across the river to Lambeth Palace. Then, at the centre of the park: the Buxton Memorial: a brightly coloured, ice cream cornet that’s been thrust upside down into the ground by a spoilt giant. This neo gothic confection was commissioned by Charles Buxton MP to celebrate those MPs, including his father, Sir T. Fowell Buxton, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, which was achieved in 1834. It was designed by Samuel Teulon, and built in 1865, originally in Parliament Square, then moved here in 1957. Marble pillars support limestone arches decorated with stone florets and gargoyle like lizards. The pointy roof a colourful 050bpatchwork of enamelled metal. All to give shelter to drinking fountains. Still intact with granite basins and spouts but no longer used in these days of bottled water. A woman is sitting in one of the basins, feet on a ledge, smoking and chatting on her phone.
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As described in the posts for several other gardens in this series ( see Sticks in the Smoke 3, 8, 15 and 31), as part of a Metropolitan Board of Works plan to build a modern sewerage system for London, administered by Joseph Bazalgette, embankments were built along the river frontage, which housed the sewers and also, in some cases, underground railway lines. A partial embankment was built along here in the 1870s which allowed a small square ornamental garden to be laid out at the southern entrance to Parliament. By the early 1900s, the rest of the riverside land had been compulsory purchased. The wharves and warehouses were demolished and the embankment extended southwards. The land was raised using spoil excavated from the creation of docks downstream, and the gardens were extended a further 300 metres or so to the foot of Lambeth Bridge.
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At the western end, where the park narrows, a curving wall is topped with a pair of modernist sculptures of goats with kids (created by Philip Tilden, arts and crafts designer, in 1923). The ground behind is devoted to play: circular sandpit, slide, swings and climbing structures, landscaped with flowerbeds and shrubs. I climb the wide steps up towards Lambeth Bridge. From this elevated level I have a view back across the park. It encompasses everything from the Victoria Tower, the Buxton Memorial, the wide Thames downstream to the flattened arches of Westminster Bridge. I unpack my things and set up to draw.
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050aBehind me the traffic on Lambeth Bridge is a relentless roar. But from down below I hear an intermittent jingling. It’s a square of step chimes in the playground on which children are dancing tunes. Someone’s close to achieving “twinkle twinkle little star”, so nearly got it, when the noble bongs of Big Ben drown out all lesser sounds for the song of one o’clock.
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Tourists on their way down the steps stop to look at my drawing (see top). A trio of Italians take photos of it and as I step back I’m suddenly aware I’ve made the Tower way too big, clumsy and out of proportion, damn it! Standing out like a great fat sore thumb on the page! When they’ve gone I cover it with lashings of correction fluid and rework it at half the width it was.
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A cruiser passes under the bridge and its wake laps the exposed shingle. River breeze ruffles the water and shakes the plane branches. It feels chill and damp and a few raindrops land on my paper but I persist as they get more insistent, peppering the paint. I quite like the effect, but decide to look for cover and head for the WCs, just under these steps. Well worth the 20p entry: warmth and shelter for a while, but even better: a hand dryer! I waft my damp sketchbook under the blast of heat until it feels as crisp as a sun warmed sheet.
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I walk through the drizzle to the Buxton Memorial and lay my sketchbook out on a basin, protected from the rain. To draw through the frame of polished pink pillars across the rising tide to the tall structures on the far bank, ranged like the teeth of a broken comb: the medieval battlemented Lollards and Lauds Towers of Lambeth Palace; the watchtower of 050fthe old St Thomas’s hospital– a riverside perch for seagulls. And misty in the background- The Shard and the high rise blocks of Kennington.
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This park is the proposed site for a Holocaust Memorial, announced by David Cameron in 2016. A range of shortlisted designs were unveiled on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 (27 January), from artists and architects, including Anish Kapoor, Daniel Libeskind and Rachel Whiteread. However, the siting is controversial. Partly that it will be a massive intrusion into this airy and open space, but more importantly: that the memorial is far too significant to be hidden away here, around the side of Parliament. Why can’t it be placed in a more prominent position (such as Parliament Square or College Green), where it can be an ever present and insistent reminder of the greatest of human tragedies? (You can follow this link to sign a petition to Save Victoria Tower Gardens).
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My drawing nearly finished (see below). The drizzle has eased. A smartly suited businessman comes over, thrusts his phone towards me and asks if I can take a photo of him in front of Parliament to send back home (I think he’s from India). He stands stiffly to attention and grimaces at me. I take the picture then hand back the phone. He thanks me and wanders off, looking at the screen. Then turns around and comes back, shaking his head, “I wasn’t smiling enough, do you mind taking another one?” He stands just the same, but this time I say “Smile!” But he doesn’t really, he just stretches his mouth a bit wider horizontally. I take the photo, then realise he has Victoria Tower exactly sticking out of the top of his head like a very tall, golden top hat. But he seems satisfied, nods, and walks away.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JA
Open dawn – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 49: Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn

Lincolns-Inn--FieldsStorm Doris. And her opposite. (Thursday 23 February 2017)

So very windy today – London’s catching the swishing skirts of Storm Doris. I pass many people gripping their jackets and coats tightly around them as they dash to pick up some lunch.

I take an anti clockwise route around the perimeter path of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which wraps this space, the largest garden square in London. The paths are strewn with 049btwigs, shed from the mature plane trees which give this space its crisscrossing vaulted roof. Clatters more with every gust. No one seems much bothered by this fall of wood; there’s a healthy flow of lunchtime walkers in ones and twos and more. A mix of students, lawyers and office workers, local residents walking dogs. But, much more than any other park I’ve visited in this project: so many runners, fitness groups. The slap of trainers on tarmac. And, on the south quarter, overshadowed by the imposing portico of the Royal College of Surgeons and Hunterian Museum, are the tennis courts, bursting out of their nets with vigour and volleys.

Bounce back 500 years or so and this was a cattle grazed pasture called Cup Field. Londoners came out here from the City to fill their lungs with fresh air or take part in open air sports such as jousting, swordfighting or archery. Turnstiles were placed on the footpaths into the fields to allow people in, but to stop livestock straying. These remembered in the names of three narrow alleyways just to the north of the park: Little Turnstile, Great Turnstile and New Turnstile.

049cLincoln’s Inn itself is one of London’s four Inns of Court, housed in a collection of fine historic buildings set in a collegiate enclave of courtyards and gardens, just to the east of the Fields. A diaper patterned brick wall surrounds and encloses its eleven acre estate. Lawyers were originally encouraged to move up here to the hamlet of Holborn in the 13th century by the third Earl of Lincoln  after a royal decree that no legal education could take place in the City of London. The Inn became formally established and purchased the present site in the 16th century. The turreted towers and tall Gothic windows of the Great Hall (built in the 1840s) and the Library (completed in the 1870s), peer out over these fields.

I’m blown towards the centre of the park, where a large gravelled circle is a hub to the four north, east, south and west tarmac paths plus one earthy diagonal shortcut track worn across the northeast lawn.  A surrounding ring of mature plane trees. Dead centre to this is an octagonal bandstand or shelter. A brass plaque set into the floor reads: “Near this spot was beheaded William Lord Russell, a lover of constitutional liberty 21 July AD 1683”. This was the site of occasional public executions. Lord William Russell (mentioned in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 45 Russell Square, Bloomsbury) was executed (with four clumsy hamfisted blows of the axe, it’s said) for his alleged part in the Rye House Plotthe attempted assassination of King Charles II. He was later proven innocent and posthumously pardoned. Which I’m sure made him feel a whole lot better!

049eI start setting my drawing things up under the shelter but realise it’s filling with people in sports gear getting ready for a class, doing warm up exercises and stretching and making appropriate sporty grunts and snorts. I back away and set up instead in front of a bushy thicket to draw the view across the park, with the former Land Registry Building (now a department of the London School of Economics) a stately redbrick backdrop. I start scribbling, one hand holding my easel from being blown over, trying to describe the upper tree branches swinging and swooping with the wind, a curly, jiggly aerial dance. There’s even movement detectable in the upper trunks. The gale rages overhead in waves of roaring bursts, but thankfully no rain. With every wave, a great crashing racket like an explosion! It turns out to be plastic sheeting covering scaffolding at the northwest corner of the square. The exercise class goes on regardless, under the canopy, led by a girl in lime green lycra. Her voice shrill across the gravel, enthusiastically counting her victims through a sequence of acts of self torture.

Across to my right, the Fields Cafe parasols are being buffeted and shaken. Five hundred years ago, that spot was the site of a gunpowder house (after many accidental explosions and fires in the City, gunpowder storage was moved out to fields like this, well away from habitation or means of detonation). But London was fast expanding in this direction and it wasn’t long before developers saw the plump potential of these fields for building. 049a Lincoln’s Inn enjoyed its rural and pastoral outlook so took a dim and nimby view to proposals for development. It was only after several decades of negotiations between the landowners and the Inn that agreement was reached whereby houses could be built, but the Inn had control over their design . And these seven acres where I’m drawing today, was to be kept green, with walks and trees and lawns.

In the 1700s, residents of the square, outraged by roguery, thievery and rubbish tipping in the fields appealed to have the square enclosed. Which it was in the 1730s, making it a private and more genteel space of lawns and paths and, for a while, a duck pond just about where I’m standing. Later in that century, many of the fine houses around this square were taken on by wealthy lawyers, attracted by its proximity to the Royal Law Courts. Barrister’s chambers were founded and solicitors’ offices opened (including Farrer & Co who are still there today, in their stately premises at No. 66; solicitors to much of the aristocracy, and the Queen).

049fDrawing finished (see at top), I shake a couple of twigs out of my rucksack and haul it on my back and explore the rest of the park. Sunshine flings tree shadows across the fields. Dogs of all sorts are having a field day, with a million sticks to chase after. A group of runners are sprinting across the gravel, crunching woody debris as they go. Parks workers are trying to collect up the fallen twigs, but one of their large canvas sacks has escaped from the truck. It careers past, billowing, dancing; it pirouettes a full circle on one of its corners before being whisked away behind a stand of shrubs. 

The layout of the park hasn’t changed much since the start of the nineteenth century, with perimeter shrubberies, trees and bandstand. Towards the eastern side was a little subtropical plantation, which is still here. The park was eventually opened to the public in 1894 and was immediately popular, being pretty well the only substantial piece of public green space for at least half a mile in any direction. Bands played on summer afternoons. Areas were set aside for tennis and golf putting. As I walk the paths I pass several memorials, but the one that stands out the most commemorates Margaret MacDonald the social reformer (wife of Ramsey MacDonald, first Labour prime minister), who died in 1911, 049dway too early at the age of 41. A curving bench seat topped with a sculpture (created by sculptor Richard Goulden), of this beneficent woman, tending a twisting clutch of playing children and inscribed below: “This seat placed here in memory of Margaret MacDonald who spent her life in helping others”.

The sun catches specks of pink standing out against the dark of a holly tree. Blossom glowing on bare black viburnum sticks. I scramble around and start a drawing from behind them (see below), looking through and across the open stretch of northern lawns. Leaves scratching the back of my neck as the tree sways. Cold gusts in my face. A constant parade of runners pass. A game of three a side football gets underway on the worn grass. Bags and coats for goals.

And then, from the corner of my eye, a tightly raincoated figure, bent over, almost double, shuffling along. Painfully, painfully, picking her way with a pair of sticks. Woollen hat pulled over ears, bag over shoulder. Advancing so very slowly, gaze intent on dragging feet and knocking the odd twig away with a stick. She pauses in front of me and tortuously turns her head round from under her collar to look up. I smile and nod. She looks for a while; a slight tremor, then gets back to her mission. It takes a full five minutes for her to walk across my field of vision. Quiet and measured: the very opposite of today’s Storm Doris. And I think: of all the people in this park today, exercising, stretching and pushing themselves to the limit, it’s that bowed and aged soul who wins, hands down, the gold medal for endurance and determination.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, London. WC2A 3TL
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 48: Paddington Street Gardens, Marylebone

paddington-street-gardensA Place in the Earth (Thursday 2 February 2017)

The deep desire for a piece of the Earth to call your own after you die has saved many acres of original London soil and clay from being paved, concreted or tarmacked over. Just like several of the other public gardens I’ve visited in this project, Paddington Street Gardens owes it’s existence to an earlier incarnation as burial ground.

048bThe sky today is a slab of slate. I feel a few flicks of rain but turn up my collar and follow the paths which trace a tapering rectangle around the garden and a curving ‘X’ across the middle. As I walk I try to imagine this landscape about 280 years ago, dank and misty this time of year, a line of wintery willows in the west which mark the line of the stream, or bourne (the village name was originally St Mary le Bourne).  And in the sky to the southeast, a bruise black shroud hanging over the City. Sometimes for days on end. Smoke from the 30,000 coal fires of Georgian London. Getting ever closer each winter. And a couple of fields away the stubby stone spire of the village church, with rooks clamouring and circling. By the 1730s, the church sexton was struggling to find space for new graves, so this 2.5 acres of land I’m visiting today was donated to the parish as a new burial ground by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford (a politician and major London landowner; Harley Street and Oxford Street were named after him).

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Fitzpatrick Mausoleum

Forty years later, an additional acre of land was acquired on the opposite side of the street, which has now become Paddington Street Gardens North: a square of lawn with shrubs and beds and edged with old gravestone remnants, overlooked by a smart apartment block; its plate glass reflecting and fragmenting the crooked tangle of tree twiggery.

The garden is well tended, abundant shrub foliage is a mix of hues, from shiny blue laurels to the brightest yellow choisya, singing out through the light rain. Planted terracotta pots line the paths. A symmetrical pattern of lawns with embellishments of geometric beds evenly pricked with yellow and blue flowers. Winter worn grass has been taped off and reseeded. A flock of pigeons pecking their way across.  The north lawn has a series of segmented beds planted with different rose varieties. At the moment all are simply woody stems, well pruned and spiky, tiny buds of new growth just emerging. I have to content myself with the colourful pictures on the labels at the head of each tranche. Overhanging the northwest corner a towering structure is rising, scaffolded and plastic sheeted: the Chiltern Place apartments will look down onto the broad canopies of mature plane and lime trees 048gwhich fringe these gardens. And on, over the roofs and chimneys of the surrounding Victorian streets.

In the second half of the 18th century, two workhouses were built to the north and south of these burial grounds (just as in Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair. See Sticks in the Smoke 47). Perhaps it was thought that a view of a cemetery would be a constant reminder to the inmates of their own mortality. Sure to make them feel better about being poor! A little stone sculpture of a boy gutter sweeper was placed here in 1943 (sculpted by the Milanese artist Donato Barcaglia), maybe a reminder of the once less fortunate occupants of this place.

The burial grounds were officially closed in 1814. The roots from these trees and shrubs are twining their way through the remains of around 80,000 graves.

048aThe rain comes and goes raggedly. Thankfully there are two hexagonal shelters in the gardens. Ideally, I wanted to draw from inside the north one, through its glass windows, which would frame the view of a bright metal astrolabe, perched on the top of a drinking fountain, the rose beds and tree branches interrupting the hard lines of sixties housing blocks in the background. But its ironwork gates are padlocked today, so I hurry to the far end, where the other shelter, without glass, squats in front of the twists and coils and primary colours of the children’s playground. Its gates are open and welcoming. Half lined with benches, a scent of musty damp and tobacco mix to create an atmosphere of stale incense, like in an ancient chapel. I set up to draw across the lawns, back towards the other shelter whose roof moss glows an acid yellow. And in the distance, at the end of Luxborough Street I can just about see the frontage of Madame Tussauds on Marylebone Road. A huddle of hardhatted and hoodied workmen are in here too on lunch break. They’re cackling and jeering at a 048cvideo on a phone. From their remarks and the loud soundtrack, it seems to be footage of a noisy and sweary argument between the wife of one of them and a neighbour. Voices ricochet off the hard surfaces of the building. I peer closer at the garden through the hoops of the decorative ironwork grille that clads this structure but find it difficult to focus on my drawing. A sharp shower rakes the park and rattles the roof, a bead curtain of drips sparkling in front of me. The shelter fills with people. Sheltering.

In 1885 the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) took on the task of developing these sad and neglected acres for the recreational use of the local community. Their landscape gardener, Fanny Wilkinson (designer of over 75 public gardens in London, many of them disused burial grounds), created the design and the garden was opened by Princess Louise the following summer. The original plan has stood the test of time, changing little over the years. It has always been a popular and well used space, a focus for community events, including live music in the summer. The shady plane tree 048ecanopies providing a leafy auditorium roof.

The rain stops as quickly as it started and the building empties. Sunshine glistens the paths as the garden begins to fill for school lunchtime. Yells and excited screams and hoots fill the air. A group of girls enter the shelter and sit on the benches. A sound of quiet murmuring and crinkle of crisp packets. A hi vis park keeper with litter stick and bin liner picks up discarded cans and cartons and sheets of newspaper. He glances at my drawing (see top) and nods at me as he leaves.

I pack my things and follow the east path. Bunches of schoolkids bustle around an elegant block of weathered Portland stone with classical arches and a square dome. Inscriptions on carved drapery have been eroded into illegibility. A stone urn sits high against the gathering sky, adorned with slightly sinister cherub heads that stare down at you with hollow eyes. This is the Fitzpatrick Mausoleum, erected by Richard Fitzpatrick as memorial to his wife Susanna who died in 1730. His daughter Anne, was later also interred here.

Garden of Rest

048fBefore I leave Marylebone I want to visit the original site of the parish church which was served by this ground, so walk the wet pavements up to the little courtyard space on Marylebone High Street. The chapel was built in 1740 (replacing one which was portrayed by William Hogarth in the marriage scene from ‘The Rake’s Progress’ in 1735).  An inscribed slab lists some of the notable people who were buried here, including Charles Wesley in 1788. A memorial obelisk marks the site of his grave, and a round tablet set into the paving, with spirally inscription. The chapel was used until 1926 but was demolished after suffering damage in 2nd world war bombing. Now this ‘Garden of Rest’ sits within its footprint.

Conscious once more of impending rain, I quickly set up to draw the garden’s length (see below). A gnarled and twisting locust bean tree spreads its tortured branches in front of the Victorian flank of the adjacent St Marylebone CE school. Zigzag brickwork like arches of electric shocks above its windows. Much of the paving slabs are worn and cracked gravestones. Today puddle dappled.

A couple, hands full of large bulging bags are holding a heated exchange in Russian. Their words accentuated in a bizarre dance of waving white and blue plastic. A strident bell from over the wall. The air bursts with the sound of excited girls’ voices rising to crescendo. Spots of rain pock my drawing and I realise I’m not going to get a chance to put paint to my drawing. I quickly pack and haul my rucksack onto my back just as the shower breaks.

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Paddington Street Gardens, Marylebone, London. W1U 5QA
Garden of Rest, Marylebone High Street, London. W1U 5BA
Open 7am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 47: Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair

mount-street-gardenGiraffe in the mist (Wednesday 25 January 2017)

I can feel the damp cold pressing down as I walk past expensive restaurants, polished hotel entrances and luxury shoe shops in this, one of the most well-heeled parts of London. With my scuffed walking boots and rucksack I feel like an intruder. Through 19th century lanterned gates into this old churchyard garden, hidden from the surrounding streets.
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A ride of a mile or so out of the medieval city, these open meadows were on the northern edge of the Manor of Ebury (named after the Eye Bourne, the stream which became known as the Tyburn). For centuries, a quiet backwater. But during the English Civil War, this piece of land was in a strategic location. In 1642, fears that the Royalists were planning to invade the Parliamentarian City prompted the building of defences and fortifications. A structure was built nearby, called Sergeant’s Fort, but nicknamed Oliver’s Mount (giving it’s name to Mount Street).
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‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian -Green
Defensive ditches and ridges were built right through where the present day gardens lie. They were manned by voluntary militia known as the Trained Bands. No Royalist attack on the City happened and little evidence is left of these defences.
After the end of the Civil War this area was livened up by an annual fair that took place for a fortnight at the start of May. It began as a livestock market but by the start of the 18th century had developed into a large, unregulated, sprawling event with food sellers, beer stalls, street entertainers, gambling booths, acrobatic and wrestling shows, comic theatre and lots of other attractions. Inevitably, however, as it grew it attracted thieves, pickpockets and troublemakers. Drink ran freely and the nights became rough and noisy, which didn’t go down well with local residents. Since being acquired by the Grosvenor family in 1677, this was now becoming established as a fashionable district for the gentry and aristocracy, with its grid of elegant streets and squares being laid out. So the event’s days were numbered and, following a riot in which a police constable was killed, it was brought to an end in 1709, but is still preserved in the name of the district: Mayfair.
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I follow the path past the entrance to the Neo-Gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception (built in the 1840s, designed by Gothic revivalist architect J.J.Scoles, with magnificent altar by Pugin), guarded by the densely twisting branches of an ornamental pear tree, an unnatural grey purple in this weakly light.

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Bronze giraffe presented by Italy

Lawns of threadbare winter grass are neatly enclosed with metal edging into round cornered triangles and lozenge shapes, which roll to the rim of the basement drops of the surrounding Victorian mansion blocks. These tall red brick and stone buildings, both hem in and protect the garden. There are several exotic trees planted here, such as an Australian Mimosa and a huge Canary date palm, which wouldn’t survive without the windbreak of these walls. The paths are lined with benches, only a few occupied today by hardy lunchers (there are roughly 90 benches here, many of them with dedications sponsored by Americans due to the close proximity of Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy).

At the southeast entrance, a little bronze giraffe is grazing the ornamental grasses in a wide stone planter, inscribed with: ‘A gift to the City of Westminster from the Italian Republic 20th November 1987’.
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A dense mist sits on the rooftops like a shroud, seemingly supported by the twisted branches of several massive plane trees. The garden feels slightly eerie in this gauzy light. Sounds of traffic from outside are muffled. People’s voices ring and echo around the space. Decorators are stripping paint from a grand first floor balcony window. Tapping and scraping a constant theme. A scatter of paint fragments like a light sprinkle of snow on evergreen shrubs below. I set up to draw eastwards along the garden (see top), towards the giant verdigris horse’s head on a black cube plinth, which dominates the garden (‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian-Green), its neck and mane deeply and expressively grooved. The submissive downward thrust of its head somehow adds to the melancholy air of this space.
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Grosvenor Chapel spire and Mayfair Library
In 1710 an Act of Parliament was passed, set up to relieve the pressure on overcrowded inner London churchyards. Sites were purchased to build a ‘necklace’ of churches and cemeteries around the city. This space was bought in 1723 to be used as a burial ground for the newly built St George’s Hanover Square (about quarter of a mile northeast of here). A few years later, the Grosvenor Chapel, simple and puritan (design inspiration for many New England churches), was set up here, a sentinel, its gravestone shaped east window watchful over the garden. Today, its stocky copper bluegreen spire dissolves coldly up into the mist.
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At about the same time, the parish workhouse was built on the garden’s northern flank. The local jobless and roofless were provided with hard work, board, and lodgings, their outlook over this dark and shabby cemetery. In the 1870s they were moved to a larger institution further west in Chelsea, and the workhouse was swept aside to make space for the grand apartment houses which stand here today.
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In the 1850s, these burial grounds were closed by Act of Parliament, like all others in central London, due to concerns about the health risks caused by overcrowding. In 1887, the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act allowed ‘open spaces and disused burial grounds in the Metropolis for the use of the inhabitants thereof for exercise and recreation’.

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Drinking fountain. Church of Immaculate Conception in the background

It was laid with lawns and flowerbeds, and trees were planted. The layout has stayed almost the same since then. In 1891 a bronze drinking fountain, with lions head spouts and topped with rearing horse, was designed by architects, George and Petocommissioned by a local estate agent (in 2005 it was restored to full flowing order after falling into disrepair).

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Towards the western entrance are four cherry trees, full with blossom, light and whippy against the majestic planes behind them. A scatter of pink on the grass, not fallen petals but, on closer inspection, confetti: fallout from weddings held regularly at the registry office above the Mayfair Library.
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Several school processions excitedly cross the diagonal path between St George’s Primary School on the southeast corner of the garden, and the Library. Both are impressive redbrick cakes, with Portland stone icing, built in the early 1890s in Jacobean style. One class of animated children is touring the garden with clipboards making nature notes and drawings. I hear the teacher’s stern voice: “Kyle! What did I say about keeping off the grass? AND not pulling leaves off the shrubs?”  My inner schoolboy shrinks and I hastily start packing my things, hoping she doesn’t spot me standing on the grass.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a forthcoming London exhibition)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair, London. W1K 2TH
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 46: St James’s Park, London

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Ice and fireworks (Wednesday 18 January 2017)

I push my hands deeper into my pockets as I leave Queen Anne’s Gate and cross Birdcage Walk. Brr! Feels like the coldest day! The air is crisp and glistening above these 57­ acres of frosted grass, rolling out northwards to the The Mall, which cuts, as straight as a march, from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch. The sun is melting stripes of green between the shadows of random clumps of trees.
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St James’s Park is the oldest Royal Park in London. It takes its name from a women’s leper hospital, which was built in the 12th century and dedicated to St James the Less. The views southwest from here, where the park lies today, were across marshy meadowland on the banks of the River Tyburn, grazed by cattle and wallowed by pigs. And further, towards the towers of the original Westminster Abbey against the watery gleam from the Thames beyond. In the 1530s, Henry VIII acquired all this land. He had the hospital demolished and built the redbrick St James’s Palace  as his hunting lodge retreat from the stress of Whitehall 046acourt life. He had the meadows drained and fenced as a deer park. This provided him with an almost unbroken 2 mile gallop of royal hunting grounds, from here, westwards through what is now Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
I make my way towards the lake’s Blue Bridge  (the lake was originally spanned by an ornate Chinese inspired structure, built for national celebrations of victory against Napoleon in 1814. It had a tall pagoda rising from the middle but this was destroyed in a blaze during the firework festivities. It was replaced by an elegant iron suspension bridge in 1857, which itself was replaced by this one in 1957. It looks incongruous here, better suited to link a multi storey car park with a shopping centre). The lake courses the whole length of the park. On a map it looks like a giant claw, clutching at the seat of government in Whitehall. Today the middle part of the lake is frozen in a great sheet. Two confused coots are tottering tentatively and gulls appear frozen to the surface, but a pair of swans are determinedly breaking a winding channel through the ice. Tourists and park visitors line the bridge, fascinated and clicking pictures. As the swans push ahead, the ice flexes for a moment with an eerie doink doink sound until it shatters. 046bThe dull and waxy lustre of willow ginger in the ice suddenly replaced by sharp reflections of sunlit gold.
In the early 17th century, the park was landscaped and the drainage improved. The deer made way for the royal menagerie, which included camels, crocodiles and an elephant. Also a row of aviaries which housed the royal collection of exotic birds (hence Birdcage Walk). The Tyburn wound through the park at the foot of a vineyard, to the eastern end where pools and reedy islands lured ducks which were shot for the royal table. In 1660, Charles II celebrated the return of the monarchy with a bold redesign of St James’s Park in the formal French style, under the direction of Andre Mollet, the French landscape gardener. Avenues of chestnut trees and limes with a central feature of a straight ‘canal’ half a mile long. It would freeze hard in those little ice age winters and Londoners would flock here with their skates. In the summer, visitors could take a boat along the Canal (there were even a pair of gondolas from Venice, given by the Doge). Or promenade and maybe even meet the King (sometimes accompanied by his favourite mistress, Nell Gwynne). In the evenings, though, the park gained a reputation as a place for moonlit trysts, especially at the western end, 046caround a small lake called Rosamond’s Pond (thought to be named after the tragic and romantic heroine, Rosamond Clifford).
I follow the lakeside path with the sun warm on my left cheek and the chill from the lake on my right. The banks are bustling with all kinds of water birds trumpeting, screeching, piping and calling. Then, as I walk, there’s the thud thud of a marching band pulsing the chill air. As I get closer, try as I might, I can’t stop myself stepping in time to the drumbeat. I arrive to watch as, with Buckingham Palace in the background, the bearskinned and grey- coated Foot Guards bandsmen stride as one trumpeting, piping, umpahing and thumping body round Spur Road and into their home in Wellington Barracks.
From here the path drops down to the sunken area below the balustrade of the Queen Victoria Memorial Garden. The waters of the Tyburn are gushing from an ornamental outflow to feed the lake, which keeps this end ice free. I unpack my things to draw the view down the lake (see drawing at top). The West Island hangs just there, a magical fragment of wilderness with a weeping willow draping like a golden string curtain towards the water. At the far end, the towers and domes of Whitehall twinkle like a Disney fairytale palace. The Ice Queen’s?
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In the 1820s, George IV commissioned the renowned landscape architect John Nash to remodel the park. Nash cast aside formality and straight lines to transform St James’s to pretty well its current, more pastoral appearance, with naturalistic lake, undulating lawns, winding paths and informal shrubberies and trees, which mingle up towards more formal tree lines at the edges of the park
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046dAs I finish my drawing, a rat purposefully scurries through the bank side undergrowth. Probably kept fat by the thousands of handfuls of bird seed thrown every day. A woman in a parka walks past, pigeons clinging to her shoulders and one on her hat. I think they know her. She probably comes every day with a Tupperware box of bird food.
It’s so very cold. I walk the lake path. A mass of waterbirds. And there in the quivering blue violet ripples, overlooked by the curvilinear and turf- roofed ‘Inn the Park’ cafe, is a host of coots, like a cluster of clergymen shivering in the water. I buy a steaming coffee and grip it tightly to defrost my drawing hand. My eye is caught by the sparkling spray of the Swire Fountain (installed in 2007, the jets reach over 4.5 metres high, helping to oxygenate the water), with the bright backdrop of Horse Guards Parade and WhitehallReedbeds fringe the banks at this end, fostering wildlife. And just across is Duck Island, a wild reserve for waterfowl, including a colony of pelicans (first introduced when a 046epair were donated by a Russian ambassador in 1664), which are publicly fed every day between 2 and 3pm. It’s also home to the London Parks & Gardens Trust charity.
I meander across the hard ground, my shadow stretching long, up towards The Mall. A glimpsed band of bleached white elegance between the trees. But here, at a junction in the path, stands a cherry tree, abundant with early pink blossom, ignited by sunlight. I set up my easel and start to draw (see below). On a nearby bench, a man in a khaki jacket and close cropped hair is holding a can of Special Brew. And more in a plastic bag. He calls over “excuse me my friend, what are you doing?” I tell him I’m drawing. “When did you start doing that?” I say about half an hour ago “no I mean when did you start doing art?” I tell him about a century ago. He comes over and joins me and introduces himself: “Paddy”. His face has lived and there’s a scar under his left eye. Tells me he came down from Leicester. He’d lost his mother and sister in the past 6 months and things not going too well for him up there. He came down to London to “be somewhere that no-one knows me”. Been sleeping rough; slept last night under a bush in Vauxhall. He wants to talk. Needs to tell his stories. As we chat I keep drawing the cherry blossom. It’s a burst of fireworks. Or neurons sparking in a busy mind.
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The long shadows grow longer. We share my sandwiches and he tells me that last time he was in London was in the 80s, bricklaying at Canary Wharf and he earned a packet “and I mean a packet, Nick!” And he tells me how at the age of 7 he watched his drunk Dad attack his mother with a hammer. He had to call an ambulance.
As the sun sinks the earth chill rises through the soles of my shoes. I give Paddy money for a cup of tea. He picks up his cans and rucksack and says he knows where he can go and ask for a room “I mean they’ve got about 50 bedrooms, they can spare one for the night!” and weaves off in the direction of Buckingham Palace.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

St James’s Park, London. SW1A 2BJ
Unrestricted opening
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 45: Russell Square Gardens, Bloomsbury

russell-square1The psychedelic feeding box and paradise for dogs (Thursday 5 January 2017)

At 6 acres, this is one of the largest garden squares in London. And even on this cold January day (my first London visit of 2017) it’s pretty busy; scatters of visitors enjoying this airy space, figures seated on sunlit benches, people hurrying briskly through, school groups marching the diagonal between the British Museum and the Russell Square tube station. And, with its close proximity to University College London (UCL), which occupies many of the buildings on the north and west of the square and beyond, there are plenty of students racing the shortcut across to lectures or taking a break here. A girl is cross legged 045bon the grass playing a guitar and singing. Breath steam wisps with her song. A young guy filming on his phone.

I stroll the sinuous paths across and all around the park looking for a suitable view to draw. I’m attracted by the long tree shadows raking across the lawns and the lacework patterns decorating nearby trunks cast by the lime tree tunnel. Reflected stabs of light dazzle between winter branches from windows of the buildings around the square.

The earliest written mention of this area which was to become Bloomsbury is in the Domesday Book, described as fertile land with vineyards and a “wood for 100 pigs”.  In 1202 a carucate of this land was sold to the Norman landowner, William de Blemont (a carucate was a medieval unit of land which a plough team of eight oxen could till in a year: about 120 acres). For the next 200 years his family developed and managed the estate, which became known as the manor of Blemundsbury. At the end of the 14th century, Edward III acquired the land, and bestowed it to the Carthusian monks of Charterhouse Priory, who leased it out for farming.

In the 16th century, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Bloomsbury manor was seized back by the Crown and granted to Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, a loyal counsellor of Henry VIII. His great grandson, the 4th Earl, built stately Southampton House 045cin 1657, later Bedford House, on what now is Bedford Square, just west of here. After his death, his daughter married William Russell, son and heir to the 5th Earl of Bedford, bringing the Bloomsbury Estate into the Russell family.

I set up to draw the curving ribcage of the lime tree tunnel, underlined by shadow stripes. The Senate House Library, in it’s box- shouldered Art Deco solidity (when it opened in 1936 it was, at 209ft the tallest secular building in London) rises in the background behind the square’s terraces. And, in psychedelic contrast to the elegant and serious buildings around this square, I discover a brightly decorated feeding box for squirrels, jauntily fixed to a tree trunk, and decide to include this in my foreground.

My daughter Millie joins me for lunch (in her 2nd year of an Art History degree at UCL, she’s been studying in the library today, just a few minutes away). It’s good to catch up but she’s very distracted by the many dogs being exercised here. Every moment another little 045apug or pup to coo over! An elderly lady, warm and smart in a long dark coat with fur trim stops to let Millie fuss over her little westie. She tells us she has to travel on the bus here every day “to come to a proper park to walk my Fluffy”. A slight mid European accent. A man with bright white trainers is walking hurriedly, a phone clamped to his ear but stops every minute or so to shout “Reg! REG! C’mon!” to his stout and dawdling border terrier. Which ignores him. A little black spaniel suddenly appears and drops a ball at my feet, which I kick away through a flurry of pigeons. The little dog whisks off to retrieve and brings it back like a dark flash. I pick up the slobbery ball and throw it further away but it’s returned in seconds. This goes on until its owner, a girl with crimson hair appears and says “I see Tessa has found a playmate!”

This area to the north of Bedford House was known as Southampton Fields, a mix of formal gardens, nurseries, pasture, and processions of lime trees creating a vista from the back of the house, with views across open countryside towards the village of Hampstead. It was developed from about 1800 when Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, had Bedford House demolished as he was no longer using it, and commissioned property developer James Burton to develop the land to the north into a residential area with Russell Square forming the focal point. Handsome terraces of brick and stucco were built, most of which still stand, with wrought iron balconies to overlook the gardens. The area came to be known as ‘Judge-land’ as many of the properties were taken up by members of the legal profession, 045dLincoln’s Inn and the Royal Courts being only a short carriage ride away.

Russell Square garden was designed by Humphrey Repton after the success of his work for the Dukes of Bedford’s Woburn Estate. It was originally intended for the private use of the square’s residents and guests. A genteel Georgian playground, where they could walk the perimeter promenades while protected by a high hedge from any awkward encounters with tradesmen, street hawkers or grimy child beggars. They could parade the gravelled diagonal paths intersecting the lawns, to be seen and be sociable with their neighbours. Or through the rounded walk of the lime tree cloister, providing cooling summer shade  and secret glimpses across the lawns. If they wished, they could find more private seclusion in seats under twining vines around a central shelter. Dominating the space then, as now, a statue of Francis Russell (by Sir Richard Westmacott) at the south gate, with his back to the garden. He stands high and proud, as benevolent agriculturalist, with a plough, and holding stalks of corn. Farm animals and allegorical farming figures beneath his feet.

Millie leaves to get to a lecture. A young boy and girl run across and stand on either side of my easel to watch me draw. I say hello and the girl tells me she likes drawing animals. I scribble a little dog on my drawing for her. They carry on watching. The rest of the family arrive and gather behind me and stand there. I say hello to them and carry on drawing. They watch in silence. For just a little bit too long. Slightly awkward.

In 2002, after changes to the layout in the previous few decades, the garden was re-landscaped in a style based on the original layout, reintroducing the serpentine paths from the four corners, weaving through the lawns and flower beds, and partial restoration of the lime tree tunnel. In addition, the café in the 045esquare was redeveloped and a new ornamental fountain installed. Not working today but when it’s warm, young children and drunk students love playing dare through the spurty water jets.

I pack up and walk through the west entrance to buy a cup of tea from the cafe in the green wooden Victorian cabman’s shelter. Originally there were over 60 of these shelters around London, providing hot food for hansom cab drivers. Only 13 shelters survive, some still used, like this and the one outside Upper Grosvenor Gardens (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’32), and some sadly redundant like ‘The Kremlin’ on Chelsea Embankment (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’3). I carry my tea across to the eastern corner and set up to draw through the half moon shrubbery: a wintery mix of evergreens and complex patterns of twigs and dried stems and seedheads, towards busy Southampton Row. The squeal of buses and taxis and the wail of sirens surge through the open gates. My easel suddenly starts to shake. I look down: a squirrel is dibbling at the soil, its rear paw grips the leg of my easel. A tiny silver grey hand.

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. WC1B 4JA
Open 7am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 44: Millbank Gardens

millbank-gardenTransportation and ‘Walking in the Air!’ (Wednesday 21 December 2016)

A winter solstice leaden sky threatens rain as I approach Millbank Gardens, along John Islip Street and behind Tate Britain. The parade of roadside plane trees are leafless, their pollarded branches reaching up like gnarly arms shaking fists to the sky. Seeds dangle like Christmas baubles. Below, leaf imprints in the tarmac are like faded fragments of an antique tapestry.
Millbank is a half mile or so riverside sweep south of Westminster, deriving its name from a water mill built by the monks of Westminster Abbey (see Sticks in the Smoke 39), that stood at the outflow of the River Tyburn into the Thames. Prior to the 1800s, this low and marshy piece of land was sparsely populated, merging into riverside mudflats, where mists would rise, pierced by the echoing call of snipe and the cries of gulls. Rough farmsteads squatted in these boggy meadows, cattle grazing down to the water’s edge.
This ground was long considered unsuitable for housing or development. But the perfect place, away from the city, for incarcerating enemies and undesirables, where 044bconsiderations for health and wellbeing were not high on the agenda. In 1651, four thousand Scottish Royalists were captured during the Battle of Worcester (the final battle of the English Civil War). They were force marched the 100 miles to Millbank and held here in a makeshift prison camp, where 1200 of these bone- weary prisoners died and were buried in mass graves. The survivors were sold as slaves and transported to the plantations of Barbados. Many of whom perished under creaking decks on the long ocean voyages.
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Two pieces of lime green training equipment have been installed on the central terrace of the garden (installed by The Great Outdoor Gym Company). They look like user- friendly torture devices. A personal trainer in pink top is putting her two clients through their paces: one a smallish young woman, the other a large man, like a bear in sports gear. As I walk the boundary paths, the trainer’s antipodean twang bounces around the garden: “Ok guys just 20 more seconds now……keep with it!” “C’mon! Don’t think about it, just do it!”  I set up my easel and drawing things (that’s my exercise for the day!) next to the oblong brick pavilion, in case it starts to rain and I have to scoop my things under cover. I glance over: they’re now doing bench presses on the park benches.  
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044cGuided by the spirit of Christmas, I choose a large variegated holly bush as my foreground and draw the view into the eastern half of this garden (see drawing above) where four Whitebeams (I think) grow from the lawns, displaying red clouds of delicate berries. I can just make out bright green bulb shoots cautiously emerging from a bare rectangle of earth. In the background an upper terrace behind ironwork balustrades, with large terracotta pots containing trimmed standard hollies. A fringe border of laurels and palms and evergreen shrubs. Graffiti adorns several of the rubbish bins. The trio have just finished doing crunches amongst the leaf litter. The large bearlike man lies on his back panting and groaning loudly!
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These gardens stand exactly central to where the Millbank Penitentiary was built in the early 19th century. This massive eight- sided structure covered a site of 18 acres. It rose grim and fortress- like from the muddy ground, having to be built on a concrete ‘raft’ to stop it subsiding. Six cell blocks heaved outwards, from a central circular core, where the main terrace of the gardens are today. It contained a chapel and the governor’s residence. Millbank was the largest prison in Britain, housing 1100 male and female convicts. However, the inherent dampness of this place seeped into the mildewed walls and, from its earliest days, fostered a general unhealthiness, contributing to epidemics of  dysentery, scurvy and depression. In the 1840s, because of this, and the high running costs, long term prisoners were moved to other prisons and, this became a holding depot for convicts prior to transportation.  They were held in solitary confinement for three months until their destination was decided (mostly Australia). After the brutal policy of 044dtransportation ended in 1867, Millbank reverted to being a local prison, before finally closing its heavy studded doors in 1890.
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You can still see the octagonal impression left by this structure on today’s street plan here, an indelible geometric ghost from a grim past.
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A blackbird flies a blue-black flash into the holly bush and chirrups loudly from its interior. A man comes through the gate, wearing a tall white knitted hat and clutching a whisky bottle. Tightly. He talks at me for 5 minutes in non-sequiturs, about how he used to draw but was told his line was too heavy; about the steep rise in council tax; and the cost of getting a haircut. The scotch in the half full bottle sloshing as he speaks (Later, while visiting the Tate, I see him curled in a booth seat opposite the Tate cloakroom, hat off, and fast asleep!).
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The forbidding prison walls and buildings were demolished and the site, now drained, was broken into large plots, subdivided by a grid of streets, with John Islip Street (named to commemorate John Islip, abbot of Westminster in the 16th century) bisecting north- south. For most of the 1890s and into the new century, the site echoed with the clang of construction; materials offloaded from barges moored where, only 40 years earlier, chains of convicts were being loaded onto transportation ships. The first building to be opened faced out across the Thames in its classical porticoed poise. This was the National Gallery of British Art, later to be known as the Tate Gallery (after its founder Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate) and more recently, Tate Britain. Its back is turned to Millbank Gardens; the only concession 044eto art back here is a statue of John Everett Millais, Pre-raphaelite painter, brandishing his palette and standing sentinel on a high plinth.
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Next to the Tate, and filling the southern corner of the site, the Royal Army Medical College was built in a grand mix of Baroque and French Renaissance style. Since 2005, the buildings have been home to Chelsea College of Arts.
Millbank gardens was laid out at the heart of the plan. A recreation breathing space for a new community of working families, housed in 17 redbrick mansion blocks, built by the LCC (London County Council) in the western half of the old prison footprint, using bricks salvaged from its rubble. Following Arts and Crafts Movement principles of design and respect for the individual, they welcomed their first tenants in 1903. Inspired by the proximity to the Tate, each block is named after an English artist. The gardens are overlooked by the Turner, Ruskin, Millais and Leighton Houses, which embrace the space and reflect a terracotta warmth even under today’s damp blanket of cloud.
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The exercising trio have gone. Two young sisters wearing Rudolph antlers are now playing on the gym equipment, supervised by their Dad. They’re joyfully singing ‘Walking in the Air’. 
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Millbank Gardens, John Islip St, London. SW1V 3SG
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 43: Tower Hill and Trinity Square Gardens

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Wishes in the soil and memories of 36,000 (Wednesday 14 December 2016)

Emerging from Tower Hill Station into a whiff of traffic fumes with a hint of riverside aroma, which penetrate the chill of this bright day; I’m faced with a truncated fragment of the ancient City Wall, rising to over 10 metres: a curtain of ragstone and red tile- strata of many centuries; almost half its height surviving from Roman times. This wall and its defensive moat (known later as the Citie’s Ditch), was originally built around 200AD. A statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan stands proudly in front of this wall and gestures with his right forefinger (see photo below: an 18th century bronze, allegedly discovered in a scrap yard in Southampton by Reverend T B ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of the Toc H charity). His pointing finger leads the eye 043atowards the raised walkway through to Tower Hill Gardens on the other side of the wall.
The wall shades a segment of the low grassy rise of Tower Hill. Play equipment is set into patchy grass. I set up to draw the view from here across to the walls and turrets of the Tower of London. But the sun, strong to the south, flickering and dazzling through the mass of hanging plane twiggery, turns the ancient ramparts to a grey- violet silhouette and I have to peer hard to make out its many windows and battlements. And over to the west, the Shard is a soaring blade of pure glassy blue. The relentless flow of traffic rumbles the dual carriageway road between, and pulls to a halt at the lights at the junction here. The squeal of brakes a persistent theme.
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The garden is busy with tourists. A family sit with a picnic while young daughter whooshes down the slide and then scrambles back up the earthy slope to go again.
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Tower Hill is less a hill and more a gentle rise up from the banks of the Thames, but elevated enough to offer commanding upstream and downstream views, which made this 043can ideal defensive location (there is talk and some evidence for an early Celtic fortress here). And a good strategic position just within the eastern walls of Roman Londinium.
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After the decline of Roman rule, followed by 400 year of neglect and Viking occupation, London’s walls were restored by Alfred the Great in the 890s. The Tower of London was built by the Normans soon after their conquest of Britain in 1066. Surrounded by a moat and high walls, the White Tower was the castle’s keep, built to be impregnable and commanding. It was a powerful symbol of the power of the new King William and was used as a royal residence. Over succeeding centuries its function changed variously to a prison, an armoury, a treasury, a private zoo for exotic animals (including lions), to house the Royal Mint, as a public records office and to guard the Crown Jewels.
The area around it became known as the ‘Tower Liberties’, an area that could not be built on, defined by the distance an arrow could be fired from the Tower. So Tower Hill remained undeveloped. A 20 metre wide stretch of water, known as the Citie’s Ditch, ran through here, at the foot of the Wall (where the children’s playground now stands). It emptied through 043ba channel into the Tower’s moat. At that point, where now run buses and articulated lorries, was once where tracks converged from the farms and villages outside the eastern city walls, to squeeze through a postern gate. Over the centuries, despite attempts to dredge and clear, it grew foul and choked with rubbish and waste. By 1700 the Citie’s Ditch had been filled in.
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The screech of a child pierces through the traffic noise: the sliding girl isn’t happy about being wrenched away from her slide. Then a loud slapping noise! I look across: the mother is crashing the soles of her daughter’s shoes together to get rid of the accumulated mud.
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I’m aware of a dark haired young woman wearing a light brown beret wandering around the shrubs and amongst the play equipment, searching the ground, picking things up and dropping them into her bag. After a while she goes to sit on the roundabout, sets it gently turning and films a dizzy 360 degree view of the world on her phone: Roman wall / trees / slide / scaffolded office block  / person drawing / more trees / lorry / Tower of London / bus stop / Roman wall again / slide again etc…
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Drawing finished (see image at top), I hastily pack my things. The woman has gone and I’m 043dcurious about what she was picking up. I go over and very quickly find some coins. I pick them up: one of the old large 5p (shilling sized) coins, smeared in mud. And there’s a shiny 2p coin. And then I see more. And more! Lots of different coins all around: some bright and new on the surface, and some hidden, just circular edges poking out of the earth. I prise up some more: old halfpenny pieces. I have a handful now and think about putting them in my pocket, but then start to wonder why coins have been thrown here apparently over a long period. Perhaps they’re offerings. Or wishes. I can’t take away people’s wishes! I throw them back on the ground and push them in with my heel (a mystery! Despite research, I haven’t been able to find any reference to a practice of coins being thrown here).
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I wander the 2 minutes across to Trinity Square. A steaming americano bought from the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand to warm me up. Into this 1¼ acre space of lawn; winter bare trees and evergreen shrubs around the edge. I follow the perimeter path around to the site of Tower Hill Scaffold. From 1381 public executions were carried on this raised patch of rough ground. A permanent site was established a century later. Today marked out by cobbles and chains (see photo below), with plaques to commemorate those put to death on this poignant spot.  I set up to lay this historic spot across the foreground of my drawing. 043eExecutions were a popular but grisly spectator ‘sport’, with viewing stands, raucous crowds, street entertainers and vendors. Over 350 years, at least 125 prisoners, political and criminal, lost their heads here, most of them from the aristocratic classes, including Sir Thomas More (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke 35’ Ropers Garden) and Thomas Cromwell. In 1747 Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, was the last beheading to take place in Britain.
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Apart from the carnival atmosphere of the public executions, Tower Hill had been a neglected piece of ground until, by the 18th century, local residents were getting annoyed at the dumping of rubbish, unlicensed quarrying, attacks by footpads and anti- social behaviour. Parliamentary Acts were passed authorising the creation of Trinity Square and surrounding streets. The gardens were laid out in 1795, overlooked by the neoclassical home of Trinity House (the charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers), designed by Samuel Wyatt (innovative architect of lighthouses and industrial mills). He set out the gardens in the form of an oval, with a surrounding path, much as they are today. Its use was governed by strict bylaws, limited to permit holders and residents of the square. Other grand buildings around the square include the Port of London Authority Building, built in 1922 (by Sir Edwin Cooper) with its impressive classical frontage.
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043gThe maritime character of the square’s occupants made this a fitting location for memorials to the seamen of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets lost in 20th Century wars. A large, classical temple, designed in the 20s by Sir Edwin Lutyens, bronze plaques engraved with the names of the 12,210 lost in the First World War, sits solid over my sketchbook page (see drawing at bottom). And the 8ft walls of a sunken garden behind me (see photo left), designed by Sir Edward Maufe, are set with bronze plaques to remember the 23,765 lost in the oceans during the Second World War, punctuated by 7 tall stone reliefs of allegorical figures representing the seven seas, by sculptor Charles Wheeler. The most recent addition at the east corner of the gardens, is a round memorial set at a keeling tilt, engraved with: ‘In Memory of those Merchant Seafarers Who Gave Their Lives to Secure the Freedom of the Falkland Islands in 1981’.  With these sombre memorials and the Scaffold site, this place is definitely ‘park as Memento Mori’.
Smoke billows from one of the memorial temple’s porticos: a workman leans on its sill, puffing on an e- cigarette. As the light fades fast, the darkened pillars and turret turn into the superstructure of a great ship, steaming towards the sunset. I abandon painting and try to commit the changing colours to memory as the pinnacle roofs of Tower Bridge in the background catch the last russet rays of sun. And two vapour trails scratch a silver blue cross into the pink blush of the sky.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Tower Hill Garden, Tower Hill, London. EC3N 4DR
Unrestricted opening
Trinity Square Gardens, Tower Hill, London. EC3N 4DH
Open 8am – ­ half hour before dusk

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 42: Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill

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Coco the Poodle and the Pantomime Donkey (Thursday 8 December 2016) 

A damp-chilly sort of December day. On the way I window shop the eclectic independent stores and artisan bakeries of Portobello Road and a quick glance at the Joe Strummer mural (“without people you’re nothing”), before heading for Powis Square. We’re merely a pigeon’s hop from Colville Square Gardens (which I drew back in February for ‘Sticks in the Smoke’2), an almost identical, half- acre rectangle. A slight slope down to the south.

Bare plane tree branches tremble over the garden. Accumulations of mulchy leaves on the rough ground. This is a space for play and activity; spread over most of the top half a tarmac ball court with basketball net and goalmouth. The lower end is a playground with swings and slide and climbing nets. Rough concrete sculptural crags with scramble- through holes rise from the undulating ground. And a quirky little bronze of two figures (no indication of the sculptor), constructed from pipes and tubing and machinery parts, an Adam and Eve of the industrial age; lower edges and corners polished to a gleam by years 042cof tiny stroking hands.

This was all farming land (part of the large Portobello Estate, that took its name in honour of the British naval victory at Porto Bello in Panama in 1739) until the mid nineteenth century, when improvements to roads and railway links meant that land values started to increase, luring speculating builders to bid for parcels of prime building land. In 1860, a young entrepreneur, George Tippett bought 25 acres which he reckoned would be most saleable as they were the closest plot to the City. This was quickly turned into a building site which became popularly known as Tippett’s Brick Fields. He built these streets of tall stuccoed terraces to a consistent design, aiming to cram as many properties as possible into the available space while still retaining a sense of elegance which he hoped would appeal to upper middle class families. The centre of the squares were laid out as private gardens with trees and lawns and gravel walks.

Tippett sold some of the houses he had built, but held on to the rest to lease out. His downfall came when, in the 1880s, he found it difficult to persuade many of the genteel leaseholders to renew: put off by the noise and bustle of the growing Portobello Street Market nearby and the influx of tradespeople, manual workers and immigrants which they 042dfelt ‘diluted the social tone of the neighbourhood‘. Poor George’s project ended in bankruptcy. His properties were taken on by Colville Estates, who started to subdivide them into flats or leased them as boarding houses or to institutions.

I balance my drawing things on the cross beam of a climbing frame and draw towards the upper part of the garden, and over the road to the Tabernacle Centre (originally an evangelical church built in the 1880s. Opened as the ‘Tab’, a Community Arts Centre and music venue in the 70s, since when it has staged acts including Misty in Roots, Joe Strummer, Brian Eno and Lily Allen). For much of the time there are only four other people in the garden: a father on his phone and his daughter in the playground; a young woman on a bench, wearing stripy fingerless gloves and matching hat, smoking and working at her laptop; and an older woman, dwarfed inside a big blue puffy coat, is throwing a ball for her little tartan jacketed poodle. She calls ‘C’mon Coco, fetch the ball!‘ But Coco ignores the ball and trots purposefully over and starts yapping up at me as I draw. Coco’s owner smiles nervously and apologises and drags the little dog away.

042aAs the 1800s rolled to a close, Powis Square became increasingly multicultural. The Wren College was set up here as an exam crammer, particularly for the Indian civil service. It’s students occupied many of the nearby boarding houses and, for a while, the square became nicknamed ‘Little India’. Over the next half century, waves of immigration increased the ethnic diversity of this district. Walking through these gardens in the 20s and 30s, you’d be very likely to hear Russian, Polish and Yiddish spoken. And English in accents ranging from Irish to West Indian. Many of these new residents became prey to greedy and unscrupulous landlords and subletters, leading to a high turnover of occupancy and a steady degeneration of these tenements, small flats and bedsits. In the 50s and 60s this became the heart of Peter Rachman‘s shady and squalid slum empire. Several houses hosted unlicensed basement clubs. Drug dealing and prostitution were rife. Racial tensions in the summer of 1958 led to race riots, ignited by attacks from local white youths, with pitched battles and cars burning here and in surrounding streets.
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The early 60s drew young political radicals, poets, artists and musicians into Notting Hill. Powis Square became a focus for hippy counterculture. The heady smoke of 60s idealism, dreams and passion wafted through this space. Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones, lived here. As did the beat poet Michael Horowitz and photojournalist John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and fashion designer Ossie ClarkDavid Hockney had his studio here. Scenes in the 1970 film Performance, starring Mick Jagger, were filmed in the square. The London Free School, a community action adult education project was set up here in 1966; foremost in the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival.
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Throughout this time, the garden remained padlocked and private, overgrown and poorly maintained. After a number of local children were knocked down while playing in the surrounding streets, there were campaigns of loud and colourful marches for the opening of the garden as a safe playground for ‘local kids to 042bgenerate more positive energy’. In the end the gates were forced open by activists dressed as gorillas, clowns and a pantomime donkey. Revellers poured in, celebratory bonfires were lit and the garden filled with festival fervour. This was viewed as more than just breaking into a private garden, it was seen as a small breach in the thick walls of the establishment (Poet and playwright Neil Oram decsribed it as ‘a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world). As a result of this direct action in 1968, Kensington and Chelsea Council compulsarily purchased the space and formerly opened it for the whole community. A playground was built, the gardens were landscaped and replanted. Since then it’s been the venue for music festivals and events, including the World Music stage for the Notting Hill Carnival.
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My eye is caught by a sudden flare of sunlight, breaking through the clouds and turning the Tabernacle’s tower spires momentarily to fire! As I scrabble in panic for my orange crayon, my cold, numb fingers knock the box off its precarious support and its contents scatter across the earth. I stoop to retrieve them. When I look back up the blaze of light has gone. The building settles back into its heavy Romanesque solidity as the day settles towards dusk. I look around and shiver. Apart from me the garden is empty.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill, London. W11 2BN
Open 7.30am – ­ dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 41: Kensington Memorial Park

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“Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!” (Thursday 1 December 2016)

A perfect blue hangs over this first day of winter as I take the turn into the park. I hear yells of schoolkids from the tennis courts and sharp shouts of encouragement from the teacher. Sounds of scuffing on tarmac and a ball bouncing hard. The air prickles with cold. 041bIn front is a wide expanse, 2 acres or so; shadows stretch long stripes from a regiment of bare Lombardy poplars alongside the path. They catch the sunlight and light up like skeletons of flames. I sit on a bench for a while and watch dog owners, scattered across the field, throwing balls for an assortment of breeds, who hare across the roughish grass to retrieve. The nearest dog, a kind of terrier, yaps enthusiastically as it bounces after the ball then leaps and catches mid air every time!

Rising behind the row of housebacks on the north, like the ghost of a drum, is the empty framework of one of the, now disused, Kensal Green gasometers.

Two hundred years ago this was still farmland, which had been carved out of the original Forest of Middlesex in Saxon times. Marshy pastures watered by the springs below Notting Hill, which gently seeped down to Counters Creek, just beyond the west flank of this park (Counters Creek now mostly underground until it drains into the Thames as Chelsea Creek)041cGrazing cattle knee deep in mud. This was known as Notting Barns Farm and had been inherited by the St Quintin family of Scampston Hall, Yorkshire, who grandly elevated its status to Notting Barns Manor. The farmhouse (or Manor House as the St Quintins preferred!) was only a couple of hundred metres south of here and still standing at the end of the 19th century. It was only after the 1860s, when the new Hammersmith and City railway opened up these fields to the city, that Colonel Matthew Chitty Downs St Quintin, in need of funds, leased the land to the entrepreneur Charles Henry Blake for housing development. To his credit, Colonel St Qunitin specified a high quality of housing design and amenties, which prevented these streets slumping into slumland, as happened in other parts of North Kensington by the mid 1900s. The family name endures in St Quintin Avenue and St Quintin Estate, south of the park.

It’s a busy afternoon despite the cold. Processions of schoolchildren to the sports fields. Trains of steamy breath. A few mums and toddlers in the large playground. Bright coloured space rocket skelter slides and climbing frames and springy animal bouncers (in summer, 041dthe waterpark opens for colourful cooling water play, with pools and fountains and waterjets and aquaslides). I stroll past the refreshments kiosk, shuttered like an off season seaside cafe, and up into the formal gardens. Shrubberies, lawns, a tall tree palm, central to circular beds, just planted out with winter bedding. At the top a pergola. A young couple entwined together on a bench.  The girl sits across the boy’s knees, pummelling his shoulders with her fists and laughing! He impassive. In the middle of the lawn, an olive tree is silver blue in the sunlight, its trunk twisting like a knurled torso out of the thickness of a lavender bed. I want this in the foreground of my drawing, so set up my easel on the damp grass (see drawing at top).

After the 1st World War, this 7 acre piece of land was bought by the Kensington War Memorial Committee for £8,800 and handed over to the London County Council in 1923 to be laid out as much needed recreation land in this built up area, with children’s playground and sports fields. In 1925, part of the site on the south west corner, behind where the waterpark now stands, was sold off for the building of a children’s hospital, much supported by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. It was a paediatric hospital for 40 years or so until the ’70s when it switched to geriatrics. Now the Princess Louise Nursing Home..

A group of teenage boys arrive piecemeal and gather under the pergola at the top of this formal garden. Loud and high spirited. I think it’s a regular hang out. Two of them arrive 041aon motorbikes and have kept their helmets on. They walk over the grass to look at my drawing, a muffled: “nice, nice, really sick, man!” The young girl is shrieking and jumping up to reach her mobile phone that her boyfriend is holding out of reach.

The future of this park is uncertain for these informal park visitors, dog walkers, picnickers and school PE sessions; earlier, on the way in to the park my eye was caught by a laminated poster reading “PLEASE HELP SAVE OUR PARK”. A plan by Kensington and Chelsea Council to replace half the grass here with an artificial football pitch would make this space less of an attraction for most of the people I’ve seen here today. The consultation period ended the day before my visit and the proposals are now being considered. I’d love to be able to come back here in 5 or 10 years time and still watch dogs chasing balls through those long poplar shadows stretching across real rough green grass.

My fingers are getting numb with cold and I have a serious need to wrap them around a hot chocolate. As I pack my things, a broadly smiling park attendant in yellow hi-vis coat is cycling slowly around the paths on an inspection tour. He wobbles over on his bike and calls over cheerily: “How ya doing Bruv? Bee-utiful day! Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!”

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Kensington Memorial Park, St Mark’s Road, London. W10
Open every day 7.30am – dusk
Google earth view here